Closets full of clothes that no longer fit. Filing cabinets overflowing with decades-old documents. A toaster stowed in the attic just in case the newer toaster breaks. These are not necessarily signs that someone is a slob. This clutter actually could be caused by something you never thought was associated with clutter—fear.
How can fear lead to the unattractiveness, inconvenience and chaos of clutter? Here are four ways—and what you (or a loved one) can do about it…
Fear of financial problems: A wealthy man lived in a home filled to the rafters with unneeded items. When asked why he wouldn’t part with one of those items—an old alarm clock that hadn’t been used in years—he explained that he would need this clock if his current alarm clock broke. He did not accept that he could easily afford to buy another clock if that happened.
It turned out that this man was scared that he might not be able to maintain his financial status. He had an enviable income but also major expenses including a big mortgage. He worried that if he lost his job, he would not be able to find another one that paid as well. Those kinds of worries, as is the case with many money-related concerns, were too much for him to truly face, so his mind instead focused on a smaller money matter that he could control—he could keep his old alarm clock, along with lots of other clutter, to protect against the cost of replacements.
Feelings of financial insecurity often are to blame when items go unused for years, yet still are saved because I might need it again someday. This seems to be especially common among people who endured economically challenged childhoods.
What to do: Do not accept I might need it again someday as a valid reason to keep something. Throw away, give away or sell anything that is never used. To overcome anxiety that replacing the item could be costly if it later is needed, search for similar items on eBay or Craigslist. You usually will find that a used replacement could be obtained for very little money. And if you discover that something you no longer use would be pricey to replace, don’t take that as a sign you should keep it—take it as a sign that you should sell it. Converting unused clutter into cash can help calm feelings of financial insecurity.
If you still have trouble parting with an unused item…
Remind yourself why you stopped using it in the first place. Example: That old, worn chair was put in the basement because it was too ratty for the living room. Years in the basement have not made it any more presentable.
Consider whether it holds some special meaning for you. Example: An old sweater that has become too ragged to wear might be something you associate with a happier time in your life. Try to identify this deeper meaning, and then discuss it with a friend. Sharing an item’s story can loosen the hold the item itself has on you.
Fear that you’re in over your head with something important: A widow kept every piece of paper labeled “Morgan Stanley”—including lengthy prospectuses she was never going to read and proxy statements for shareholder votes that had been held years before.
Hanging onto every piece of paper related to an important topic can seem like the safe option to someone who doesn’t understand the topic well enough to be certain which truly are important. But the more paperwork people save, the more cluttered their homes and lives become—and the more difficult it is to find those few papers that really are important.
What to do: If you are not certain what paperwork related to a particular topic is worth saving, ask someone who knows this topic better than you for guidance. Example: Ask your tax preparer or financial adviser which financial papers you need to save. Much of the financial paperwork sent out by organizations these days is available online, which can allow you not only to toss certain old papers—but also to stop delivery of future paperwork and receive it online instead. Helpful: Most owner’s manuals now are available online at manufacturers’ websites, so you no longer have any reason to hoard them.
Fear of missing out: An executive’s home office was cluttered with flyers about events he was interested in, many of which had already occurred…articles about potential vacation destinations, most so old that the details were out of date…and reviews about restaurants, some of which had already closed.
When people are afraid of missing out on opportunities, their houses can fill up with paperwork related to things they might want to do.
What to do: Create different folders on your computer—for example, one for events, another for restaurants, a third for potential vacation destinations. Then when you get an e-mail related to, say, an event, put it in the events folder. If you receive a physical flyer or brochure of potential interest, you can take pictures of it with your smartphone or scan it using a home printer/scanner and put that file in the computer folder as well. Periodically go through the folder and delete out-of-date material. Or you can use the notes feature on your smartphone to keep track of things that you used to scrawl on scraps of paper. If the activity is occurring on a specific date, you also could put this on your calendar.
Fear that anything short of perfection is not good enough: A woman owned more than 50 pairs of shoes. She reasoned that this was the only way to be sure that she had a pair of shoes that perfectly matched whatever outfit she was wearing each day. But far from making her life easier, owning the perfect shoes for every outfit (plus excessive quantities of other garments and accessories) made it very difficult for her to find what she wanted in her overstuffed closets and dressers.
Perfectionists convince themselves that anything short of the ideal is not good enough. But perfection is usually not realistic, and striving for it can have negative consequences—including clutter. A perfectionist might cram his home with too many things in hopes of having the perfect thing for every occasion…or seek the perfect organizational system for his possessions and hesitate to put anything away until that perfect system is discovered—which it never is.
What to do: If you are a perfectionist by nature, practice imperfection—each day, force yourself to intentionally do something that you know is not 100% right. Store a possession on a shelf that isn’t ideal for it. Select a garment that is not quite perfect for an occasion or an accessory that does not perfectly match your outfit. You might be shocked to discover that the world does not end when you do this. In fact, no one but you is likely to notice at all. Continue doing relatively minor things in knowingly imperfect ways at least once a day until doing so no longer feels quite so uncomfortable. You then will find it easier to unclutter your environment—and be more relaxed as well.